About a month ago I got this email from a movie theatre (yes, I get emails from them).
As you can see, it says it is a special fan event to watch the latest Avengers movie an hour earlier on opening night. I was really excited to see this event, so my wife who knows me so well insisted that I buy tickets. So I did. She had no desire whatsoever to go with me, but she insisted that I go. So that is what I did this past Thursday, I went to see one of the greatest movies that I’ve ever seen, Avengers: Infinity War.
Now if you by very probable chance haven’t seen it yet, or perhaps even probabler chance that you don’t want to watch it, I suggest you at least watch the trailer online somewhere (I won’t post a link for copyright reasons) Then you’ll see that this movie looks really really good, and take it from me, it is really really good. You should see it. Heck, I’d even go with you because I would watch it multiple times, it is that good. I’m not even kidding right now. Also because my wife still has no desire to see it with me.
Seriously though, it is a really good movie. Well, it’s really good if you like action movies, because there is a LOT of action. It’s also really good if you like superhero movies, because there is a LOT of superheroes in it. And it’s really really good if you’re a giant dork like me because there were a LOT of dorks there…
I mean, who else would go to a movie on opening night and get this special limited edition Avengers: Infinity War coin?
Sure it cost a bit more and I sat in the front row, but worth it. So worth it. (Yup… huge dork)
And no, I didn’t dress up in a super hero costume or anything like that if you were wondering, but I was really excited to see this movie. Actually, no one there was dressed up from what I saw, but I could tell they were really excited too from their demeanor, the giddy conversations that I could hear, and the fact that they all paid the same premium that I did to watch the movie a whole hour earlier than the regular folk. Oh, and did I mention that I got this sweet coin, too? Because I did. Aw yeah.
At this point, some of you may be wondering how on earth I could be your pastor. Some of you might even be thinking how I could be a pastor at all. Or maybe you’re just thinking what planet I’m from.
The thing about being a fan of something is that not everyone is going to understand or share that fanaticism (like my wife, for example). Not everyone is going to understand why someone would get so excited over a movie or comics or a dumb coin that isn’t even currency. Not everyone would share in the spirit of such an event, and it doesn’t even have to be the opening of a movie, but it could be the playoffs of a certain sport of which a favourite team is involved in, or a certain author signing a certain book, or some political demonstration speaking up against a certain injustice that affects us.
I mean, it’s obvious that we are all different people holding different opinions and worldviews and that we would enjoy different hobbies and past times. We all would consider ourselves “fans” of something or another, something that gets us excited and worked up, something that we could talk about for like hours, something that brings out our passion and fills us with energy. We all just gravitate toward certain topics and interests because we are interested in them, and we get hungry for more.
And when you find others that share the same passions? Man alive. You might find friends for life. Or maybe just start a club. Or perhaps, a community.
See when you are gathered with like-minded people, that is when comradery just naturally buds and flourishes. Getting together with others who share our interests and passions sets us up for deep relationship and companionship. Lifting up common worldviews and paradigms is a recipe for real community that changes us and might even change the world. All is needed is a strong desire for whatever it is, a strong foundation that binds us together, a strong connection that feeds us, brings us together, and renews us with strength and energy to do what needs to be done.
Almost sounds like a vine, huh?
Following all these “I am” statements that Jesus makes in the gospel of John, Jesus today declares that he is the true vine to which we are all connected and gain our nourishment and strength. That is a nice image, isn’t it? Like, we are all joined together as branches on a vine and through this vine we can get what we need to bear fruit. You all know I don’t know much about plants, but even I can appreciate this metaphor of intimacy and strong connection. But the imagery doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues with alluding God to the vinegrower, who cares for a prunes the vine, removing all the branches that don’t or can’t bear fruit.
The whole point of a vine is to produce fruit, so the vinegrower helps it along by giving the vine what it needs and removing what it doesn’t. And apparently, a healthy vine doesn’t need fruitless branches. So if we want to stay connected, if we want to still be nourished, we better abide in the vine and produce that fruit, lest we are cut off and discarded to shrivel up, whither, and probably die.
All of a sudden this nice image around plants and connection turns into a warning of “produce or else”. And we don’t like it. Good Lutherans like us don’t like these kinds of ultimatums. We don’t like this “or else” language because it goes against our theology and understanding of God’s grace, unconditional and free. So what do we make of this?
I think the key word here is “abide”. Jesus says abide in him as he abides in us, but what does that mean exactly? How do we abide in anything that is so metaphorical like a vine and so unseen like Jesus and God? And doesn’t this just feed into that “or else” language still? Like “abide in Jesus or else”?
Well, to a certain extent. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we must do something in order to bear fruit (the fruit here I take to mean the fruit of the Spirit… you know love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, against such things there is no law), but rather as he abides in us, as he connects to us and welcomes us in, as he reveals to us God’s love, grace, and mercy, as he leads us into peace, then our inkling will be to want to abide in all those promises.
As a fan feels connected to other fans, builds a community around whatever they are fanning over, and feels inclined to continue in the fandom, so we too are connected with each other as God’s children, congregating in community, and led into service for the good of a world that is broken yet healed, lost but found, sinful and redeemed.
Our second reading today out of I John tells us that God is love. As the love is abiding in us, as we are all loved and regarded as worthy additions to this vine, as we are all shown this love through our being welcomed, accepted, and forgiven, so we too will have an inkling to show this love to others. When we realise just how much we are loved and forgiven, it becomes hard not to love and to forgive.
So this “abide in me” language isn’t a command or a warning. Rather, it is a promise. It is a promise that the more we see and feel Jesus abiding in us through the love of God, so we will more and more abide in Christ. So we will more and more love others. So we will more and more bear the fruit of the Spirit, lifting up the commonality between us all, joined together by the waters of baptism and together fed and nourished by the bread and cup, the very Word that is Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is a gift from God that we all are together joined as branches to the vine. It is a gift that we are all strengthened and energized from the same source. It is a gift that we are all saved and redeemed from the same love that is God, who raised the mountains and filled the seas and threw the stars into space.
But this love graciously given to us isn’t for nothing. It isn’t a random gift that is detached from anything further. It isn’t some sort of “set it and forget it” convenience. But it is given to us that we might live fuller lives, that we might know deeper relationships, that we might know more fully the joy and peace found in God, that as Christ continually abides in us and we increasingly abide in Christ, our faith might be grown and we may know the kingdom of God.
The language around the vinegrower cutting off the fruitless branches is more about our own action, or perhaps inaction, in that when we deny God’s love for us through the abiding of Christ, we then just don’t see life in its fullness. We don’t see true community and relationship. We won’t understand how Jesus is indeed the true vine and source of that love and community that we may know that true peace.
See it isn’t a “or else” statement, but it is gracious “it’s your choice” kind of statement. God will always love us and welcome us in, but not because we decide it so. Our role is in our response to that love, whether we embrace it or not, whether we congregate in the name of this love , whether or not we reciprocate this love to one another, regardless of acceptance and/or understanding.
We are brought together in the name of this love. We are called to be fans of this God. We are all connected to this true vine who will continue to abide in us and inspiring us to be this love for the sake of the world.
This Easter season, may we draw strength from the vine, Jesus Christ, to abide in him as he does in us, that we might know the joy and peace that life has to offer. Thanks be to God. Amen.